When several academics met with public health officials and drug industry leaders Thursday at a conference to discuss seasonal- and bird-flu preparation, many of those present urged the federal government to commit billions of dollars more toward its bird-flu outbreak response plan. Many believed that without adequate financial incentives from the government, the drug industry may not make the up-front investments needed to ensure its readiness in the event of an emergency.

Johns Hopkins University Epidemiology professor John Bartlett told the conference that the government should make pandemic preparations a priority on the scale of the Apollo space mission of the 1960s. Bartlett noted that not enough companies were choosing to respond to the potential for an epidemic, and thus short on potential buyers, the drug industry was not likely to make enough.

The comments came at a time in which drug companies are already producing record levels of product. Manufacturers shipped an unprecedented 102 million doses of flu vaccine in recent months, largely in response to government policies aimed at encouraging more Americans to get the injections. The government's hope is that by making flu shots routine for more Americans, it will be easier to respond in the event of a bird-flu pandemic.

The conference was co-sponsored by several government agencies and drug companies, including GlaxoSmithKline Plc and Gilead Sciences Inc. Both companies had recently expanded. The meeting did not address consumer advocate concerns of pricing and quality control.

Even if the government sets aside significant sums of money for bird-flu readiness, private companies such as Glaxo and Novartis AG could lose interest in vaccine development if they do not first see a robust market for their regular flu shots.

"We need to recognize that a strong public health response to seasonal influenza will enable a strong public response to pandemic influenza," said Chris Colwell, a director with the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which lobbies on behalf of biotech drug makers.

The Department of Health and Human Services wants to be able to provide enough vaccine for the entire U.S. population within six months of a bird flu outbreak – a goal that could take years to reach, according to HHS Secretary Michael Leavitt. In the meantime, the government has been encouraging manufacturers to ratchet up their production capabilities by increasing output of traditional flu shots.

For the current flu season, the Centers for Disease Control recommended 218 million Americans get vaccinated. That is up from 193 million the year before.